Biofeedback for treatment of irritable bowel syndrome

Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2019 Nov 12;2019(11):CD012530. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD012530.pub2.


Background: Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a prevalent condition that currently lacks highly effective therapies for its management. Biofeedback has been proposed as a therapy that may help individuals learn to exert conscious control over sympatho-vagal balance as an indirect method of symptom management.

Objectives: Our primary objective was to assess the efficacy and safety of biofeedback-based interventions for IBS in adults and children.

Search methods: We searched the Cochrane Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) Group Specialized Trials Register, Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL), MEDLINE, EMBASE, the Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature (CINAHL), and the Allied and Complementary Medicine Database (AMED) from inception to 24 July 2019. We also searched reference lists from published trials, trial registries, device manufacturers, conference proceedings, theses, and dissertations.

Selection criteria: We judged randomized controlled trials to be eligible for inclusion if they met the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback definition of biofeedback, and if they compared a biofeedback intervention to an active, sham, or no-treatment control for the management of IBS.

Data collection and analysis: Two authors independently screened trials for inclusion, extracted data, and assessed risk of bias. Primary outcomes were IBS global or clinical improvement scores and overall quality of life measures. Secondary outcome measures were adverse events, assessments of stool frequency and consistency, changes in abdominal pain, depression, and anxiety. For dichotomous outcomes, we calculated the risk ratio (RR) and 95% confidence interval (CI). For continuous outcomes, we calculated the mean difference (MD) and 95% CI. We used GRADE criteria to assess the overall certainty of the evidence.

Main results: We identified eight randomized trials with a total of 300 adult participants for our analysis. We did not identify any trials in children. Four trials assessed thermal biofeedback. One trial assessed rectosigmoidal biofeedback. Two trials assessed heart rate variability biofeedback. Two trials assessed electrocutaneous biofeedback. Comparators were: no treatment (symptom monitoring group; three studies), attention control (pseudomeditation; two studies), relaxation control (one study), counseling (two studies), hypnotherapy (one study), standard therapy (one study), and sham biofeedback (one study). We judged all trials to have a high or unclear risk of bias. Global/Clinical improvement The clinical benefit of biofeedback plus standard therapy compared to standard therapy alone was uncertain (RR 4.20, 95% CI 1.40 to 12.58; 1 study, 20 participants; very low-certainty evidence). The same study also compared biofeedback plus standard therapy to sham biofeedback plus standard therapy. The clinical benefit in the biofeedback group was uncertain (RR 2.33, 95% CI 1.13 to 4.80; 1 study, 20 participants; very low-certainty evidence). The clinical benefit of heart rate biofeedback compared to hypnotherapy was uncertain when measured with the IBS severity scoring system (IBS-SSS) (MD -58.80, 95% CI -109.11 to -8.49; 1 study, 61 participants; low-certainty evidence). Compared to counseling, the effect of heart rate biofeedback was unclear when measured with a composite symptom reduction score (MD 7.03, 95% CI -51.07 to 65.13; 1 study, 29 participants; low-certainty evidence) and when evaluated for clinical response (50% improvement) (RR 1.09, 95% CI 0.48 to 2.45; 1 study, 29 participants; low-certainty evidence). The clinical benefit of thermal biofeedback used in a multi-component psychological intervention (MCPI) compared to no treatment was uncertain when measured with a composite clinical symptom reduction score (MD 30.34, 95% CI 8.47 to 52.21; 3 studies, 101 participants; very low-certainty evidence), and when evaluated as clinical response (50% improvement) (RR 2.12, 95% CI 1.24 to 3.62; 3 studies, 101 participants; very low-certainty evidence). Compared to attention control, the effects of thermal biofeedback within an MCPI were unclear when measured with a composite clinical symptom reduction score (MD 4.02, 95% CI -21.41 to 29.45; 2 studies, 80 participants; very low-certainty evidence) and when evaluated as clinical response (50% improvement) (RR 1.10, 95% CI 0.72 to 1.69, 2 studies, 80 participants; very low-certainty evidence). Quality of life A single trial used overall quality of life as an outcome measure, and reported that both the biofeedback and cognitive therapy groups improved after treatment. The trial did not note any between-group differences, and did not report any outcome data. Adverse events Only one of the eight trials explicitly reported adverse events. This study reported no adverse events in either the biofeedback or cognitive therapy groups (RD 0.00, 95% CI -0.12 to 0.12; 29 participants; low-certainty evidence).

Authors' conclusions: There is currently not enough evidence to assess whether biofeedback interventions are effective for controlling symptoms of IBS. Given the positive results reported in small trials to date, biofeedback deserves further study in people with IBS. Future research should include active control groups that use high provider-participant interaction, in an attempt to balance non-specific effects of interventions between groups, and report both commonly used outcome measures (e.g. IBS-SSS) and historical outcome measures (e.g. the composite primary symptom reduction (CPSR) score) to allow for meta-analysis with previous studies. Future studies should be explicit in their reporting of adverse events.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Child
  • Feedback, Physiological / physiology*
  • Feedback, Psychological / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome / therapy*
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Treatment Outcome